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U.S. Department of State

Great Seal logo Harold Hongju Koh
Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

Testimony before the House Committee on International Relations
Washington, DC, September 14, 1999

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The Global Problem of Trafficking in Persons: Breaking the Vicious Cycle on "Trafficking of Women and Children in the International Sex Trade"

Mr. Chairman, thank you for holding today's hearing on the worldwide problem of trafficking of persons. You should be commended for shining a spotlight on this important human rights issue. Hearings such as these demonstrate the interest of the U.S. Government in combating these egregious practices, and send a clear signal to traffickers that they will not be tolerated. This past July, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) unanimously passed a resolution condemning sexual trafficking: a success, Mr. Chairman, for which you were in large part responsible. I applaud you and your colleagues on the U.S. delegation for your leadership, as a result of which the delegations from Belgium, Hungary, Lithuania, Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom unanimously joined the U.S. in agreeing to a resolution that urges participating states to punish traffickers, even while raising public awareness of the crime of trafficking.

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee, my colleague and friend Theresa Loar, Director of the President's Interagency Council on Women and Senior Coordinator for International Women's Issues at the State Department, joins me here today to discuss how we can work together to address this key issue. By appearing together, we send the message that the entire Administration shares your determination that we must stop those who profit from the tragedy of trafficking and help those who are its victims once again find dignity.

This is an issue that has touched my life professionally and personally, both in my work as a private human rights attorney and now as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. As you know, as a private refugee attorney, I represented literally thousands of Haitians, Cuban, and Chinese citizens who took to small boats seeking safe haven in the United States, some of whom, no doubt, were victims of traffickers. I also served as co-counsel in New York in a well-publicized case involving a group of hearing-impaired Mexican workers, who were lured to this country, terrorized by their captors, and forced to peddle wares on the streets of New York by day, deprived of food and sleep at night. These individuals, too, were victims of heartless trafficking schemes designed to rob them of their money, their livelihood, and most importantly, their dignity.

Since coming to the State Department, I have worked to make sure that the Administration addresses all forms of trafficking. This past March, I traveled to Chiang Mai, Thailand with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, where we visited the Hill Tribes Institute, which has worked diligently to educate indigenous people throughout Southeast Asia and to create economic alternatives to the dangers of sex trafficking. Some of the young girls at the Institute were no older than my own 13-year old daughter. The experience reminded me that trafficking hits us so hard because it so often involves children like our own. That so many around the world would resort to the exploitation of innocents for personal and monetary gain must be regarded as one of the most brutal forms of evil we confront today.

Mr. Chairman, it is with these children in mind that I present my testimony here today. All too often, we think of trafficking as a faceless "problem:" a criminal problem, an economic problem, an immigration problem, a health problem. In fact, trafficking is devastating to its victims. Let me speak to you today not about trafficking as a multi-billion dollar industry--although it is--nor as an immigration or health problem--although it is also that. I speak strictly from the perspective of an international human rights lawyer, who sees in trafficking the very antithesis of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In fact, I would argue that trafficking represents one of the most comprehensive challenges to human rights in the world today, for it involves the very denial of the humanity of its victims.

Traffickers abuse virtually the entire spectrum of rights protected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. By their acts, traffickers deny that all persons are born free and equal in dignity and rights; they deny their victims freedom of movement, freedom of association, and the most basic freedom: to have a childhood. Traffickers profit from arbitrary detention, slavery, rape, and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. They regularly violate any human right that gets in the way of a profit. Most fundamentally, traffickers do not respect any of these rights, because they view their victims as objects, chattel to be bought and sold as needed.

Trafficking is a truly global plague, one that may appear in Denver as well as in Delhi, in London as in Lagos. It takes many forms, from forced prostitution to bonded domestic servitude, from coerced work in sweatshops to the pressing into service of child soldiers. It involves women and children, but also men, victims from every walk of life, every culture, every religion. Following my prepared testimony, I would be happy to discuss particular examples of trafficking from numerous countries around the world. Indeed, Mr. Chairman, in the most recent edition of our annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, which I presented to this Committee this past February, we identify at least 60 countries in which trafficking takes place. That number, which is in all likelihood a conservative estimate, represents nearly one-third of the countries in the world. But before turning to specifics, let me sketch for you the broader scope and complexity of this global problem.

Practices vary from region to region and according to the type of trafficking, but it is possible to make some generalizations. Trafficking involves a vicious cycle in which victims are forced or lured from their home countries, shuttled across one or more international borders, and enslaved, with human rights violations occurring at every step of the way. In "source countries" where trafficking originates--which can be any part of the world, including the United States--victims of trafficking can include men, women, and children of every age group. However, a majority are girls and women under the age of 25. Some respond to employment agencies fronting for traffickers and some are sold to traffickers because their families cannot afford to take care of them. A few are tricked into traveling with a so-called "family friend" or "uncle"to a large city to go shopping, only to discover too late that they have been kidnapped and ensnared by traffickers in a world of violence and slavery. In almost every situation, traffickers prey upon the hopes and fears of their victims: in the case of the runaway, offering shelter and sympathy; in the case of the poor family, offering a false way out of debt; in the case of those seeking passage abroad, offering the false hope of a better life.

In many cases, victims are sent to "transit countries," where traffickers make it clear that they have no choice but to accept prostitution, debt bondage, or other forms of involuntary servitude. Once a person is in the traffickers' hands, the traffickers regularly use any and all means to ensure their cooperation: typically drugs, violence--including sexual assault--, threats to victims' families, and threats to turn victims over to unsympathetic local authorities. If victims have identity papers to begin with, traffickers often seize or destroy them to ensure compliance. Where money has been exchanged--either by the victim to ensure passage, or as payment to the victim's family--victims are often told that the cost of transport is greater than expected, and that they will have to work additional months or years to pay back the traffickers.

Traffickers frequently will move victims- who may be blindfolded or otherwise prevented from seeing where they are and where they are going-- rom safe house to safe house, from city to city, or increasingly, from country to country. Once victims of trafficking arrive in so-called "receiving countries," they often are kept in squalid conditions in a state of virtual house arrest. In the victims' world, violence, drugs, and threats about the authorities form part of the brutal daily routine. So too are long hours of forced servitude--whether in a brothel as a prostitute, at gunpoint as a child soldier, or at a sewing machine as a sweatshop worker. What little compensation comes the victim's way is usually a tiny percentage of actual earnings, with the balance claimed by the trafficker to "cover" so-called costs such as room, board, and clothing, or to "repay" the original "loan." In cases involving prostitution and pornography, victims are forced to continue working regardless of disease, meaning that many work throughout pregnancies and despite having contracted sexually-transmitted diseases, including HIV. In fact, the HIV crisis has only fueled the expansion of sex trafficking, with pimps seeking increasingly younger girls and boys in order to market them to customers as "clean." Health care is non-existent or provided only by fellow victims, leaving most victims at high risk of further health complications, and ensuring that many children born to trafficking victims while in captivity will themselves be trafficked, usually through adoption rings, ensuring that the vicious cycle will continue.

With that important background, let me now turn to the issue of possible legislation, in particular, H.R. 1356, the Freedom From Sexual Trafficking Act of 1999. Mr. Chairman, as you said before the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly earlier this summer: "It is time to aggressively attack this contemporary manifestation of slavery." As my colleague Theresa Loar will testify, this Administration has taken a strong stand against trafficking in persons and has involved many agencies in a cooperative effort to combat this problem, no matter where it may occur. At the same time, we recognize that this Congress, like this Administration, has focused greater attention on this horrifying practice than any predecessor. The Administration strongly supports the bill's objective of combating trafficking and appreciates the efforts of you, Chairman Smith, and the other bill sponsors to try to craft legislation that reflects our shared goals of preventing trafficking, prosecuting those who engage in such terrible crimes, and protecting trafficking victims. We are committed to working with you and other Members to fight trafficking through a variety of means, and we believe that joint Congressional and Administration attention to this issue will send a strong message worldwide that the U.S. Government is serious about fighting traffickers.

For that reason, we strongly agree on the need to provide statutory protection for aliens in the United States who are victims of trafficking, and the value of strengthening our own criminal laws to help bring traffickers to justice. We also agree that reporting on all forms of trafficking of persons as a violation of international human rights standards is crucial to determining the extent and nature of the problem, combating such abhorrent violations of human rights, and providing appropriate aid to victims. The first step in deterring trafficking and bringing traffickers to justice is to identify and break the vicious cycle that I have described in countries around the globe, including countries of origin, transit countries, and receiving countries-particularly, but by no means exclusively, if there is evidence of active official participation in trafficking.

At the same time, however, we do not believe in reinventing the wheel. In our judgment, new reporting requirements are unnecessary and would further burden the already overworked staff members of my Bureau's Office of Country Reports and Asylum Affairs. Instead, I would argue that the best framework within which the Administration can report on trafficking already exists in our annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, the principal human rights document by which the U.S. Government reports to Congress and this Committee on all human rights conditions worldwide. By using these existing, well-established, and widely-respected Country Reports as the method of choice to spotlight the trafficking issue as an important human rights concern, we can ensure that reporting on trafficking will not be marginalized, but rather, fully integrated into our broader, yearly human rights reporting. To expand both the breadth and depth of our coverage in the Country Reports, I am pleased to announce today that we have made a commitment this year to add a new sub-section on trafficking in each of the 194 country chapters in the 1999 Country Reports under Section 6, which is entitled "Worker Rights."

In the same vein, we believe that any draft legislation best serves our mutual goal of combating trafficking when it consolidates and strengthens existing response mechanisms rather than creating cumbersome new mechanisms in their stead. The draft bills we have seen focus almost solely on trafficking in women and children for sexual purposes. As I have just described, the phenomenon of trafficking is much broader, and is better defined as the problem of trafficking in persons. Moreover, the draft bills choose to address the issue by imposing new and onerous reporting requirements, creating one or more new layers of bureaucracy, and creating mandatory sanctions requirements that target government actors, even when private traffickers bear major responsibility for the problem, and where creation of economic alternatives to trafficking, not punishment of state entities, is most likely to provide relief for the victims.

Given the scope and magnitude of the global trafficking problem that I have described, I fully understand the temptation to search for a "new" legislative approach or mechanism to address the problem. But new reporting, new offices, and new sanctions are not solutions in and of themselves, nor will they yield a quick fix for what is a massive and complex global problem. To address the problem effectively, we need to focus on recurring features of the generic problem, to support existing response mechanisms, and then to do everything in our power to break the vicious cycle of human rights violations that are occurring.

We already have a Human Rights Bureau with a global mandate. We already have the President's Interagency Council to help coordinate the executive branch response. We already have human rights reporting on trafficking, which as I have said, will be more thorough and comprehensive on this issue from this year forward. We already have a range of diplomatic tools at our disposal to address the issue, including essentially all of sanctions discussed in the various draft bills. Most importantly, we already have the political will to address the question. What we need is not new institutions and new bureaucratic requirements, but sufficient capacity for existing offices that already recognize the problem and have a mandate to deal with it.

The draft House bill, in particular, appears to be modeled after the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 ("IRFA"), particularly in its emphasis on mandatory sanctions. For three important reasons, we believe that IRFA represents an inappropriate paradigm for anti-trafficking legislation.

  • First, unlike religious persecution, which tends to occur within a single country, trafficking in persons represents a transnational problem, which usually involves the forced movement of people across one or more international borders. As a result, mandatory sanctions targeted at any one country will not likely have the desired impact on the transnational problem.

  • Second, targeted sanctions against specific states are far less effective deterrents when the primary moving forces behind the problem are not national government officials or policies, but non-state actors. Traffickers, like their counterparts in international organized crime and narcotics, avoid national criminal penalties by shifting their base of operations across borders to reap the highest level of profits. Trafficking tends to be a "bottom-up" and not a "top-down" problem: the root causes usually rest in private greed and economic and social conditions, not government micro-management. When foreign government officials are involved or complicit in trafficking, it is usually at the provincial and local level, where the blunt instrument of sanctions has decidedly less impact.

    Similarly, unlike victims of religious persecution, victims of trafficking rarely belong to organized groups, and do not enjoy the protection of established transnational institutions capable of speaking out on their behalf. Organized religion has proven to be an exceptional advocate for those who suffer at the hands of religious persecution. But as the admirable NGO advocates who will testify later today will tell you, no corresponding institution yet exists for victims of trafficking. When sanctions do work, they tend to do so by supporting the efforts of private institutions who oppose and challenge the governmental action that violates human rights. Without such private, institutional support, sanctions against states in which trafficking takes place are unlikely to succeed.

  • Third and finally, because trafficking is a burgeoning problem, as you know from your own work with the OSCE Parliamentarians, governments around the world are increasingly concerned about the issue, and are beginning to address it. A great many affected governments want to deter trafficking, but lack the resources to do so. But if we implement the legislation as proposed, almost all countries could find themselves in default of some statutory requirement and hence, eligible to be subject to its mandatory sanctions. A unilateral sanctions regime that targets even those countries who are beginning to address the issue could well end up discouraging, rather than encouraging, effective international cooperation and the emerging international regime to address the problem. For example, mandatory sanctions could seriously undermine our continuing efforts to negotiate the Trafficking in Persons Protocol.
In sum, new legislation should not focus on developing unnecessary new institutions or establishing onerous new requirements that address only the symptoms and pathology of the problem. Instead, we hope that Congress and the Administration can work together within the Department's existing legislative framework to find ways to address the root causes of the problem and to break the vicious global cycle of trafficking.

In sum, Mr. Chairman, the President and the Secretary of State have committed our Administration to making the fight against trafficking an integral aspect of our overall human rights policy. This Committee, under your leadership, is also playing an extremely important role in promoting the same goal. We look forward to working you, and the other members of this Committee, to identify the most effective means and mechanisms to strengthen our mutual commitment to break the vicious cycle that causes this terrible transnational problem.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for your attention. I stand ready to address any questions that you and the Committee members may have. First, however, I would like to turn the floor over to my colleague Theresa Loar, who as Director of the President's Interagency Council on Women and Senior Coordinator for International Women's Issues at the State Department, has played a key role in facilitating the Administration's response to this important issue. Thank you very much.

[end of document]

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